“How I Got My Body Back!”
This headline popped up yet again on my smartphone, this time as I was shoveling a small mountain of tortilla chips smothered with queso into my mouth. (The end of twenty-eight straight weeks of “morning” sickness results in a feeling of indulgent victory every time legitimate hunger strikes.)
The ad featured a thin, toned, bikini-clad, smiling celebrity mom, happily presenting her new baby to the camera. The contrast between her flawless figure and my . . . er. . . healthy pregnancy was almost comical. Still, the nachos suddenly tasted a little bit like shame.
We’re hardly surprised anymore by quick turnaround times for postpartum celebs to reclaim their pre-pregnancy fitness and beauty levels. Famous moms routinely adhere to stringent diets, rigorous workout programs, and other methods of rapid weight loss in order to quickly recapture their former glory.
Our bellies should swell with children and shared meals and laughter. Our eyes should smart with tears as we grieve with those who mourn. Our knees should ache as we kneel to serve, and our hands should twinge as they clasp the fingers of the dying.Glossy photos and hyperbolic headlines suggest that these mothers know nothing of post-pregnancy swelling, sleep deprivation, hormonally-induced sobbing, varieties of soreness, hair conditioned by newborn vomit, or even weight retention. Instead, they appear to immediately bounce back physically to their former selves, as though the postpartum condition is merely a side effect that can be reversed through willpower and diligence.
I don’t make a habit of criticizing parents; raising children is hard enough without the peanut gallery chiming in with unsolicited opinions. Nor do I intend to parse through postpartum body image, reassuring mothers that their . . . um . . . adjusted bodies are just as alluring as the sixteen-year-old versions of themselves.
I’m not concerned with a specific diet plan or rejuvenation therapy, but rather, the philosophy that encourages this kind of rabid chase for youthful perfection. Many of these postpartum cover girls don’t just give the impression of losing weight, but actually appear to have reversed the entire pregnancy, save the actual infant. This is bigger than fat shame: it bespeaks a prudish embarrassment about physical function.
Our cultural obsession with bodily perfection betrays itself most candidly in these magazine headlines. The path of preserving physical impeccability may be tempting, but it reveals a kind of insecurity, a resistance to growth and change that extends well beyond maternal physicality and into every aspect of our lives. We want, it seems, to accumulate life experiences without aging, without damage, without evidence. We want our bodies to operate invisibly, to be emblems of near perfection rather than vessels of service.
The fact remains, however, that without tremendous intervention, bodies absorb stress and trauma. They grow weary and marred. Obsessively chasing after youthful physique is a fool’s errand, a feat that can only be accomplished in artificial ways. Our created bodies are meant to serve spiritual purposes, and those purposes often initiate or exacerbate physical deterioration. Whether this depreciation evinces sex appeal or generates allure is completely irrelevant; it is, for better or worse, the natural order of created things this side of the fall.
But thankfully, it is also the pathway redeemed by Jesus, who used His body to its utmost potential and broke Himself for us. He spent every bit of breath, bone, and blood, giving every cell a purpose, every atom an intent. He allowed his flesh to be maimed and torn. His blood stained, His sweat dripped, His muscles twisted. Every part of Him was damaged and marred to make room for us, to deliver us into the kingdom of God. And when His father restored Him to life, He still bore those scars. The delicate baby, the strong boy, the capable young man: none of those phases were meant to last. The call of Christ is one of continual death, of surrender, of allowing God’s plan to wreck and scar and exhaust.
We can pretend that bodies are shrines to our youth, but they are better considered as places. They can be havens and homes. They can be agents of mercy. But what they aren’t meant to be is preserved. The natural thing is for them to stretch, bend, and break, to be muddled by touch and disturbed by need.
As Paul writes, we are meant to offer our bodies as living sacrifices, beings that weaken and suffer and endlessly minister. Our bellies should swell with children and shared meals and laughter. Our eyes should smart with tears as we grieve with those who mourn. Our knees should ache as we kneel to serve, and our hands should twinge as they clasp the fingers of the dying. A preserved body is stagnant, atrophied; its value misunderstood, its substance misapplied. A sacrificed body is tired, rundown, redeemed, and truly beautiful.
Both of these philosophies of materiality are temporal in nature. One bears backward in time, endlessly scrambling toward an ideal that has already past, if it was ever within grasp at all. The other rightly allows time to move forward, faithful to the belief that in decay, death, and ash everything will be resurrected, made eternally beautiful. We don’t seek out ugliness and disfigurement; rather, we allow ourselves to be broken so we can be raised toward a greater purpose.
The call of Christ is ever against what celebrity culture and marketing gurus deem beautiful and easy. It is a plea to walk through ugliness, to embrace decay, to lay our selves down again and again. It is, in short, the only right response to the Creator, who daily demands that we give our bodies back to those who need us, which is to say, to Him.